When Kumail Nanjiani was casting his father in The Big Sick, his real father posed a challenge: Get Anupam Kher.
For more than one generation of moviegoers who grew up with Indian cinema, Kher is the quintessential father figure. He’s been in over 500 films and played a dad for a good three decades now. He’s familiar to Western audiences because of Bend It Like Beckham, E.R., Silver Linings Playbook, and Sense8. Surely there could be no one better suited for the part.
As someone who grew up with Kher’s movies (he’s been playing a dad since before my dad was my dad), seeing him in The Big Sick elicits an immense sense of pride. He is, for millions of South Asians, our collective fictional father. He’s family, and he knows it.
“I love life. I love working … I discard all the things which I do not like because my energy will go into those areas,” Kher told Mashable. “I see what is amazing. Why will you and me meet otherwise if I had not done Big Sick?”
While the Nanjiani family grew up with Kher’s movies, Kher hadn’t heard of the man who would soon play his son. They connected via Twitter and ended up working together, because Kher, too, took Kumail’s father’s request to heart.
“I looked at it as a son wanting to fulfill his father’s wish, and I was responsible for that.”
“I looked at it as a son wanting to fulfill his father’s wish, and I was responsible for that,” he said.
Kher described The Big Sick as inspirational and a film that “breathes life.” Kher has his own autobiographical work, a stage show called Kucch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai (“anything can happen”). “There is an amazing sense of believability in that,” he said of an actor performing lived experiences. “And that’s what I admire.”
Our conversation flits in and out of Hindi; He asks where my parents are from and wishes them well, is keenly aware that the person interviewing him feels a similar sense of pride about the film’s work in South Asian visibility.
“Culture is important. Culture is your identity,” he said. “I think people outside India are more Indian than Indians in India. Because their whole stress is that they need to maintain the culture. I think over here the first generation Indians who come here, their main tussle will be with the second generation … that they cannot explain to you why culture is important, because they’ve left it behind and they’re clinging onto that thing.”
That’s exactly the conflict between Pakistani-born Kumail and his parents in The Big Sick, as Kumail rejects traditional interpretations of Islam and Pakistani culture (e.g. arranged marriage) in favor of his American dreams. But what’s different about The Big Sick is Kumail’s unwillingness to just let these things go; his first instinct is that he cannot, above all, lose his family, so he will do what he must to keep them in his life.
“When I do a film abroad out of India I’m basically representing my country,” Kher said. Actors aren’t explicitly representing their countries in the way of politicians or athletes, but when you’re no longer in the majority it’s an easy assumption. “I don’t have to feel that ‘Okay, I’ve made it now that I’m doing an English-language film.’ I’ve accomplished a lot of work back home and I’ll always be wanting to be called an Indian actor working abroad.”
“You sharpen your edges when you work abroad,” Kher said.
It feels contradictory, especially given the weight on an actor like Priyanka Chopra’s shoulders to represent an entire nation complexly and constantly. There’s an underlying sense in Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry in India, that making it in the West is Making It.
“What Priyanka has achieved in particular, and also Deepika [Padukone], is to take the Indian actors globally on such a big scale,” Kher said, comparing them to actors of his ilk like Irrfan Khan and Om Puri. “Our background being from theatre — we don’t have the burden of being leading actors or leading ladies or something like that. So we can depend only on the performance part of it. The pressure on Priyanka is to be accepted globally.”
On his visit to New York, Kher was honored by the Legionnaires Of Laughter, a prestigious comedy award presented by Jerry Lewis, in recognition of his work at home and internationally.
“You sharpen your edges when you work abroad,” Kher said. “Because you’re working with different kinds of actors. You want to give your best, so you’re not lazy even for five minutes. You’re not happy that you’ve done so much work. ‘Now let me be a veteran’-type thing. I always approach everything as a newcomer so that helps me keep the enthusiasm alive.”
Kher has worked abroad plenty of times before on the aforementioned films and TV shows, but he takes it in stride. Work is work.
“I do not think of myself as this veteran legend actor who has done 500 films, etc. I don’t carry the burden of Anupam Kher on my shoulders,” Kher said. “It’s too difficult and it’s too idiotic … but I was always like that. Why carry this burden of being judged or serious and things like that? It’s too difficult. People kill their happiness by thinking what other people think of them.”
Kher told Mashable that he believes life is “90 percent ordinary, 10 percent extraordinary.” With his film career and his commitment to not take things too seriously, he feels he’s met that quote, and then some. What remains now is to continuing working — to continuing enjoying the work, and using it to uplift artists like Nanjiani and their inspirational stories.
“The fact that he changes whole life for this girl who does not even know what is happening for eight days in a coma and what all does he go through keeping also his family … I think that whole inspirational quality, that whole warm quality of the script — they have been wonderfully able to capture,” Kher said.
The Big Sick is now in theaters.